This post was written by Denise Kray

What’s the opposite? It Depends!

Before reading, watch this video for more tips on Teaching Vocabulary with Gradable Opposites:

What happens when you ask a student, “What’s the opposite of ‘hot’”? Most likely the student says, “cold.”  One way we English teachers deal with meaning is to teach with synonyms and antonyms. Let’s look at antonyms – antonyms are basically ‘opposites.’ This is a common technique in the ESL classroom. Why do we do that? Does it really work? Does it make sense to do this? One explanation is that the meanings of words are understood in relation to other words in the language. This provides context and clarity to the word in question.

In general, we can categorize antonyms as gradable or non-gradable. For now, we are specifically looking at adjectives and adverbs.

  • Non-gradable opposites can be referred to as ‘complementaries.’ These are words that cannot be graded because they are truly opposite in meaning. So, what does THAT mean? They are opposed states. If one of the words is true for X, then the other is not. If an animal is male, then it is not female. The words in the pair are ‘mutually exclusive.’ For example, if X is alive, then Y is dead. Or, true vs. false and imperfect vs. perfect. Consider:

  1. Non-gradable opposites are not usually modified by adverbs of intensity. However, we have some fixed expressions we use, for example almost dead (=about to die), half-dead (=very tired), so alive (=feeling very well), stone dead and dead as a doornail (emphatic/hyperbolic), but these expressions do not represent points on a scale, or continuum.
  2. There are usually no adjectives representing intermediate states between non-gradable antonyms.

  • Another kind of opposite is referred to as converseness. In this case the pair of words show a reciprocal relationship. For example, if X sold the car to Y, then Y bought the car. Or, husband vs. wife, and near vs. far. In this case, we can’t really ask, “what’s the opposite of bought?’ Didn’t buy?” Students may have learned relationship words before, or have experience with a pair of words in context of their first language. In this case, a student may say the opposite of far is near. For beginner students, word pairs are often limited to these kinds of opposites. However, confusion arises without clear context for the sense of the words. Converse pairs often exist in family and social relationships along with space and time relations.

  • Gradable antonyms can be referred to as ‘polar opposites’. What does that mean? We often teach ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ as opposites but there are few things to consider:

  1. They are not opposites in the same way as ‘male and female’, or ‘happy and unhappy.’ Why?
  2. We need to ask the question, “compared to what?” My coffee may be hot in relation to your coffee, but not in relation to John’s coffee. There is an element of ‘relativity.’
  3. These kinds of statements are subjective and depend on the speaker’s opinion or experience. There is often a change in our pronunciation of words as we go to the ‘extreme’ ends; our emotions get involved! Can you say, “I loathe you,”or, “I despise going to the dentist” with a smile and normal voicing? Ok, may be you can, but should you?
  4. Non-gradable opposites cannot be represented on a scale, a continuum. Gradable opposites can – and should be! There are often other adjectives that fall between and around the original pair.
  5. Going back to our example? Exactly how ‘hot’ is hot? This depends on what you are talking about: a hot day, a hot cup of tea, hot noodles, a hot shower, hot oil, hot air, etc. (from
  6. We often modify adjectives with adverbs, e.g. extremely hot, very hot, too hot, so hot, and quite hot. By adding adverbs we are trying to show the concept of gradable – that these kind of opposites can be placed at different points on the continuum, or scale.

So what do we do about all of this? How do we teach opposites in ESL? The best tip is to teach them together – as much as possible. Show the relationships between the words (see above) and definitely include the 6 points to consider (see above)!

I find that including a visual whenever possible in any English language lesson is helpful! For gradable opposites, you can vary the continuum or scale. For hot and cold, you could have a line with pictures representing each level of ‘hotness,’ e.g. torrid, scalding, scorching, hot, warm, tepid, lukewarm, cool, chilly, freezing. For size adjectives use different sized letters, e.g. Enormous, gigantic, huge, big, little/small, tiny, miniscule, microscopic (can you actually ‘see’ microscopic? Just sayin’).

A few more teaching tips:

  • Make sure to provide context for the words.

  • Get students to debate their opinion for where words should fall on the scale/continuum.

  • Give students the words and let them ‘discover’ where they should be placed, and get them to come to a consensus (this really proves points 2 and 3 above).

So, have some fun, and check out these sources for more information: